Hayley Williams has been the face of Paramore for over half her life, so you better believe she knows how to put on a show. When examining pop-rock’s quirky bombast during the 2000s, there’s hardly a more apt representation than Williams wielding a carrot microphone onstage at Warped Tour, with flaming hair to match. Even as a teenager, Williams boasted operatic vocals – more suitable for heavy metal than a pop act – and on Paramore’s early efforts, she used them primarily to proclaim her Christian faith. But as the band matured, so did Williams’ versatility, and her ability to bend her own words to her will: the sneering declarations on songs like “crushcrushcrush” turned infatuation into a curse, and she presented the sugar-coated cynicism of “Ain’t It Fun,” Paramore’s biggest hit to date, as a full-throated gospel revelry.
Williams, now 31, has helmed Paramore’s sonic evolution from emo-pop figureheads to pop-rock mainstays, all amidst a storm of dramatic lineup changes (and returns), legal disputes over songwriting and a brief period where Williams herself quit the band due to mental health concerns. The crisis postponed her engagement to her longtime boyfriend, New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert; they eventually married in 2016, but divorced a year later. Soon after, Williams checked into an intensive therapeutic retreat, emerging with an idea for a music project during her time off between touring. “I really thought, I’m going to write a bunch of R&B songs for fun,” she told the New York Times. Long resistant to going solo, Williams had inadvertently planted the seeds for her first standalone album, Petals for Armor.
Released in three parts over the course of this spring, Petals for Armor can be viewed as a trilogy of five songs each, where Williams explores her changing coping mechanisms in the midst of hardship. Her path leads through seething rage, spontaneous revelation and, eventually, new romance. “Take the elephant by the hand and hold it/It’s cruel to tame a thing that don’t know its strength,” she sings early on the album, advising herself more than anyone. Though several of Williams’ bandmates contributed to the album – Paramore’s touring bassist Joey Howard is a co-writer with her on seven of the 15 tracks, and guitarist Taylor York is credited as a songwriter and producer – their presence is hardly felt. This is Williams’ journey to take.
Part of why Petals for Armor feels so singularly hers comes from the album’s other main theme, femininity. Floral imagery abounds, as do other signifiers of domestic life: spices, sugar, soft animals, the occasional dance party. Williams employs these symbols not only as a nod to traditional womanhood – something she’s never fully identified with, by her own admission – but as a suggestion that they contain broader meanings of growth, restoration, and partnership. “I am in a garden/Tending to my own/So what do I care/And what do you care, if I grow?” she asks on “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” a healing balm of a song that rejects pitting women against each other, sung with the supergroup Boygenius. Coming from the person who penned, and later “retired,” the internalized misogyny of “Misery Business,” it’s clear that Williams has reckoned with her role, and her personal sacrifices, within a largely male-dominated music scene for most of her career. On “Cinnamon,” an ode to finding comfort inside one’s house, Williams keeps the concrete details spare, whittling down her abode to the bare essentials: her dog, a light citrus smell, and the feeling that she can finally be whole again.
Sonically, there are hints of the disco-funk grooves explored on Paramore’s last album, 2017’s After Laughter, which paired Williams’ musings on anxiety and depression with a twinkling Eighties pastiche. But whereas After Laughter was a geyser of anthemic choruses and bright emotionalism, Petals for Armor’s moodiness stays just below the surface. It’s murkier, more eclectic, and much less predictable. The album’s first track and lead single, “Simmer,” is also its thesis statement; Williams surrounds herself with plucked guitar strings, jazzy bass lines and fidgeting drums that only boil over when you least expect them to. When she does unleash, Williams cuts neatly through the sparseness, whether it be the distorted vocal outbursts on the album’s first third, the unhinged mania of “Dead Horse,” or the Solange-esque R&B during the chorus of “Over It.”
At 15 tracks, Petals for Armor can occasionally feel redundant; two or three songs feel like retread territory that was better explored elsewhere, and there’s only so many metaphors you can create for flowers. Still, the album’s final third, while the most pop-oriented section, is also its most interesting. In her quest for inner peace and happiness, Williams traverses through a myriad of dance genres, including Control-era Janet Jackson, house music, and even Bjork trip-hop – Williams does a unabashed vocal impression of the Icelandic icon at the beginning of “Watch Me While I Bloom.” These quotations aren’t a detriment; if anything, they reinforce the album’s themes of female solidarity and artistic lineage, going just far back enough to where Williams’ influences all sound in conversation with each other. It’s the sound of an artist blooming into some of the best music of her career.